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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 6 * March 26, 2001

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Faith-based HR

Heaven help us! A new phrase is entering the lexicon of public administration — “faith-based” programs. The current debate is over whether religious-based organizations should receive public funding and public support for the delivery of social services.

Proponents argue that as a society, we need all the help we can get in aiding people in need. Therefore, they say, open the doors, or, if your prefer, the “pearly gates” to government funding of religious-based or faith-based groups. These groups do great work in this area already, albeit without public agency support and within the context of particular religious philosophies or commitments.

On the other side of the argument is the very basic or, if the reader will pardon the expression, “fundamentalist” feature of American government. Should the government lend support and provide cash to institutions or programs that are “Velcroed” to a particular religion? America’s answer historically has been “no.”

Yet, faith-based programs would bring to public administration a component of commitment and personal values that we appear to be losing as a society.

These values may be the catalyst that prompts many to break free of substance abuse, domestic violence or low self-esteem. If we really want to explore the best ways to mitigate these terrible problems, should we not include in the spectrum of experimentation and measurement programs that are faith-based?

The implications for public policy are significant and beyond the scope of one short article. In fact, the HR Doctor is fully aware of the great risk of discussing politics and religion in the same article. At least, I didn’t add sex to the mix!

Nonetheless, faith-based programming has broad implications, not just for service delivery, but also in administering human resources.

The notion of crossing the border between religion and use of government resources is not new to an HR professional (see the HR Doctor’s article Religion in the Workplace at Where the subject is holiday decorations, employee proselytizing, Bible study groups meeting at work or employees serving clients while wearing t-shirts or buttons that advocate a particular religion, HR professionals are called upon to respond.

Sooner or later in every public agency in America, administrators will face the need to make balanced judgments. How are these judgments made? Is there a “transplant” possible between these HR issues and the larger faith-based discussion? The HR Doctor believes there is.

The basic principles surrounding these kinds of HR decisions focus on making reasonable accommodations when possible and not permitting the religious belief, or non-belief of one person or group to affect in any unwelcome manner the terms and conditions of the employment of another person or the environment of the workplace.

In addition, the public employer must take steps to ensure that there is no perception and no reality of government support or endorsement for any particular religious belief. In other words, the employer must ensure that no religious belief or practice is imposed on anyone — that telephones, vehicles, facilities and other government resources are not allied with one religious belief. Finally, public managers must take prompt and effective action to investigate and correct any failure in this separation.

It is hard to imagine any public organization in the 21st century making an employment decision based upon a candidate’s religion or for a government agency to put up a sign or place an advertisement that says “NINA” (No Irish Need Apply) or make decisions based only upon the race or gender or an applicant. It would be bad public policy as well as being “illegal, immoral and fattening,” as I’ve said before.

If the current faith-based debate ends up changing public policy even in terms of pilot programs, we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to draw very clear, very careful, and very strictly enforced guidelines and limits to make certain that we preserve separation of church and state and are able to make clear distinctions programs of the public or programs of the pulpit.

The needs and the temptation for a positive and appealing solution are incredibly great, however, before we take too big a bite out of this particular temptation apple, it would be a good idea to have it thoroughly inspected by the lessons of history and a significant public debate.



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